Time's True Progenitor— Luce’s Rival Resurrected

Time Inc. was in trouble. Two men with very different visions for its future fought for control of the company, and even as the company dipped its toe, gingerly, into new media, a big financial downturn was headed its way before the year was out. No, not 2006—things looked far worse for the company in February 1929, when the fledgling media company was also faced with the sudden death of the talented young Yale grad whose name had become synonymous with its flagship magazine. No, not Henry Luce, who would embody Time for later generations. In its formative years, Time’s presiding genius was Briton Hadden, who hailed from Brooklyn Heights.

Hadden was one of those gifted sons of privilege who reaped the full benefits of the age before meritocracy. In a world where rich men’s dull sons swarmed Ivy League campuses (while mute, inglorious Miltons struggled to escape the Midwest), his eccentric brilliance shone doubly bright. Hadden frequented speakeasies, wore torn sweaters to high-society functions and liked to organize baseball games as a break from intellectual labor. His stubborn refusal to be turned down for a job by New York World editor Henry Bayard Swope—“Mr. Swope, you’re interfering with my destiny”—well captures both his delusions and his grandeur. Only a fatal case of streptococcal infection, which killed him at 30, interfered with that destiny, throwing control of Time Inc. to his partner, freeing him to become the Luce of legend.

Luce and Hadden were classmates at both Hotchkiss and Yale before founding Time, and though Luce excelled as a student, Hadden had him licked in everything else. “Brit Hadden,—if ever a class had one big man,—is the big man of our class,” Luce wrote his father from Yale. Hadden returned the compliment, for the most part: “It’s like a race,” he said. “No matter how hard I run, Luce is always there.” Most importantly for the two aspiring “journalists” (as they called themselves), Hadden won the editorship of the student newspaper at both schools. At Time’s inception, they agreed in principle to alternate the editorship of Time yearly, but Hadden wasn’t about to let Luce near his baby. So Luce concentrated on the business side instead.

Their two egos were often too much for Time’s cramped quarters, and Isaiah Wilner’s The Man Time Forgot is primarily a history of that rivalry. Mr. Wilner aims to restore Hadden to his proper place in publishing history—and to take Luce down a peg. He succeeds admirably in the former, but his preoccupation with the latter mars the book.

A fluid and talented young writer, Mr. Wilner became interested in Hadden while he himself was editor of the Yale Daily News. This is his first book, and it shows: A scarcity of archival sources, the author’s hilariously ardent admiration for his subject (“To watch him edit was to watch Babe Ruth at the bat”), and a lack of knowledge of the era detract from an otherwise jaunty account.

Mr. Wilner’s chief achievement is to document, for the first time and with evidence from Time’s own archives, that Time really was Hadden’s brainchild from the start. (Previous, Time-approved histories left this intentionally vague.) Hadden recruited the magazine’s initial skeleton crew, determined the editorial content and undoubtedly also played the key role in pitching the idea to investors. But his real innovation was the magazine’s unique editorial voice.

Time had no reporters, only contributors who distilled, summarized and interpreted reports from newspapers. Its “unique selling proposition,” as we would call it today, was its organization, news judgment and pithy, almost telegraphic writing style, which came to be known as Timestyle. Hadden, a sucker for Ancient Greek, invented epithets like “the bomb-boy of Bolshevism” for colorful characters in the news. Time wrote about “pundits,” “tycoons” and “socialites” (words it helped to popularize). Hadden’s Homeric fetish also found fruit in Timestyle’s famously convoluted grammar. “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind,” jibed Wolcott Gibbs in the famous parody.

Mr. Wilner makes the somewhat grandiose claim that the snappy style that Hadden imposed on Time “transformed journalism into something new.” But he didn’t convince me that Time succeeded because, rather than in spite, of Timestyle. He calls the magazine’s prose “easy to read” (it was not), and suggests that part of its appeal was that it “expanded the vocabulary” of the average American.

Perhaps. But journalism of Hadden’s era was hardly monosyllabic. Indeed, the early 20th-century American idiom—that of Mencken, George Jean Nathan, even of sportswriters like Grantland Rice—was verbose and extravagant. Only after Hemingway did intelligent men start to write like fourth-graders.

Often, Mr. Wilner doesn’t know when he’s got hold of a good thing. He makes offhand mention, for instance, that Luce and Hadden took their prospectus to Mencken (whom he refers to, ridiculously, as a “celebrity journalist”). No man had fascinated Ivy Leaguers of their generation more, and the Sage of Baltimore also happened to be the most influential magazine editor of the day. What did Luce and Hadden think of him? Mr. Wilner doesn’t say. The reader must look elsewhere (indeed, to books long out of print) to learn that, like most of his contemporaries, Hadden was greatly influenced by the mob-mocking Mencken.

So fond was Hadden, in fact, of the Mencken-discovered Sinclair Lewis that he would run up to businessmen on the street and shout at them: “Babbitt!” Remarkably, Mr. Wilner fails to mention this odd habit, which certainly would illuminate Hadden’s skepticism about Luce’s new project, Fortune. Indeed, the chief conflict between the magazine’s founders came down to their attitude toward Middle America: Luce was, at heart, a bit of a Babbitt himself; Hadden was a smirking elitist who accidentally invented Babbitt’s Bible.

Because Mr. Wilner never convincingly places Hadden in his intellectual milieu, the case for his “genius”—rather than his editorial wizardry, say—falls flat. Ditto with Luce’s “betrayal.” According to Mr. Wilner, Luce “violated Hadden’s death wish”—he must mean “dying wish”—by purchasing shares in Time that Hadden had left to his family. But why blame Luce for this and not the family? Also consider what might have happened to Time had Luce not consolidated a majority interest. Condé Nast lost control of his company during the Great Depression, and as a result the great Vanity Fair was shuttered in 1936.

Certainly Luce was no saint, and Mr. Wilner does convincingly document his later reluctance to give Hadden due credit, at least in public. But Luce’s work was really only beginning in 1929. He’d set out quite self-consciously to storm the citadels of power, and Time Inc. became his battering ram. Had Hadden lived, Luce might have found one elsewhere (Nast once offered to merge their two companies). But what about Hadden? Could he have kept Time Inc. afloat long enough to launch the other magazines he dreamed of? Or might he have headed to Hollywood instead—or gone insane? We’ll never know.

Though The Man Time Forgot would have it otherwise, Briton Hadden remains important today primarily as a chapter in the biography of his friend and rival. Such are the hazards of fortune, to invoke another of the one-word titles that Henry Luce seemed to adore. Or to put it another way: That’s life.

David Propson is a writer and editor in New York.

Time's True Progenitor— Luce’s Rival Resurrected